A couple years ago, 22-year-old Chisom Nwokwu was a student at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. Now she is an author and a software developer with Microsoft, one of the biggest technology firms ever made. She tells us how she did it — and tells us how you can do it as well.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing.
I was raised with one sibling, my elder sister. We lived in Calabar. My dad was a manager at Golden Penny and my mum was a teacher. That’s about it.
They say teacher’s kids are always brilliant…
[Laughs] It’s true!
Hahaha. At what stage did computers come into your life?
Pretty young. My dad bought us a computer and got a teacher to come in every week. There was a lot of typing and little coding. We also had a computer lab in school. I think they used computers a lot at my dad’s company, and he thought his kids needed to learn how to use it.
What year was this?
I would guess 2008.
Were you a maths whiz in secondary school?
I didn’t like maths! My favourite subject was data processing. That’s what we called it in my school. I was in boarding school so there wasn’t a lot of access to computers, but whenever we had practical sessions with the computer, I was happy to go.
Did you know what you were going to study at this stage?
Not really. I just knew I wanted something that wouldn’t take me away from the computer. I like technical drawing so my teacher would tell me I could connect it to my love for computers. I also like banking, from all those times I followed my mum to banks. It wasn’t too hard to choose when the time came. And my parents wanted their kids to follow their passions.
You chose Computer Science at UNN. How was it?
It was good. I’m not talking about studying the course itself, but the environment opened me up to extracurricular opportunities. Taking up leadership positions, managing projects, building soft skills and so on. The course was good as well, but we didn’t do a lot of practicals. We did a lot of maths, and as I said, I’m not really a maths person.
What would you say was an important part in your development in tech?
I became involved with Roar Hall, which was a kind of accelerator arrangement in UNN. It was there I found the connection between what I was studying in school and my computer lessons as a kid.
What did you start with?
I started with HTML and CSS. Everybody was doing it, but I found that it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t entering. Then on a special day, I walked over to someone who was building an application. I spoke to him and he said he and his team wanted to launch it on Google’s Play Store. It opened my eyes. He gave me a path to follow and I started learning android development. It was really hard, but I was able to publish my first app on Play Store.
How long did it take?
It took six months and I built it in java.
They say that’s a hard language.
It is, but it is learnable. That was my first language.
What was the app about?
It was for teaching Igbo. It is still live and it has gotten about 10,000 downloads.
Is it paid?
No. I wasn’t doing it for money. But to be honest I could have made it paid; I just didn’t know it was going to blow.
You live, you learn.
After that, I started looking forward to life as a tech graduate; I realised I could build a career in tech. I started learning about soft skills and how to put myself out there. I was writing articles on android development and publishing online. I started speaking about tech in public and I did a number of programs, including the Microsoft Student Ambassador programme. This was mostly in 2019.
What happened the next year?
Lockdown. That was my final year. I started scouting for a job. A few of my friends were from UNILAG and students from that school are very aware of international opportunities. I was hearing stories from people working at Google, Facebook and other big companies. When I was growing up, I would see “Windows Vista” while turning on my desktop, and I’d tell my parents I wanted to work for “Windows”. It was later I realised Windows was Microsoft.
I saw a webinar featuring engineers from those big tech companies and all of them were from UNILAG. I registered and met Teniola Sulaiman. She spoke about applying to big tech companies and how she finally got a role in London. That event opened my eyes: If these people can get these jobs from Nigeria, from schooling here, then it shouldn’t be so hard for me to do it.
Yeah. My friends were also interested so we opened a group chat and started applying. The whole of the lockdown period was just job applications, preparing for interviews and selling myself on LinkedIn, on my cover letters, everywhere. I was applying to big companies. Teni gave me some guidance. I would go to their websites and check if they are hiring students and new graduates. The more I applied the more I understood that I needed to streamline my applications to internships and graduate programmes.
When was the first time you realised something big was happening?
It was when I applied to Google and they reached out to me.
How did that go?
I flopped! [Laughs] They sent me a coding test for a technical interview. I knew I wasn’t ready when they reached out, but I accepted it. I saw three mighty questions. Those things looked so strange back then. My code wasn’t running. I was getting errors and errors. I expected a rejection, and they sent it. But I was happy that they saw my resume and they liked it enough to reach out. I interviewed with Bloomberg and Palantir, but it didn’t work out.
What needed to change?
I needed to get better technically. I needed to practise. The Bloomberg one was weird. I passed their tests, and the interview went well. The next day I got a rejection. I cried and cried and didn’t practise for two weeks.
Pele. When did the big one happen?
In November 2020, a Microsoft employee reached out to me on LinkedIn, saying she has been seeing all the articles I have written and that she would like to recommend me for a role. I clicked on the role she sent, and it was the exact one I had applied for. Almost immediately, Microsoft answered my email, inviting me for an interview. That was just it.
That same week, Bank of America reached out. They wanted to check my technical ability. I interviewed with BOA first and then Microsoft in January. Both acceptances came in the same week. I was happy and couldn’t believe it!
I can imagine it was wonderful.
It was. I was looking at the contract and marvelling at the money I would be making. Is this me? [Laughs] Microsoft allowed me to start in November. I had to relocate to Lagos. For BOA, I was supposed to travel to Dublin but Covid restrictions were still there. So, it was virtual and lasted for three months. I was a technology analyst in their robotics team. I got the internship with all my friends in the group chat, so even if it was difficult combining it with school, I knew that there were other people facing the same thing. I could reach out to them, and they’d provide me with tips.
Misery loves company.
The BOA was your first employment, right?
What did it pay?
They paid in pounds. Less than £4,400 and they paid twice.
You must have been the queen of Nsukka.
[Laughs] Nobody knew. My friends who got it were not in my school.
Right. So what was it like moving to Lagos for the Microsoft job?
It was scary. Leaving Nsukka and Calabar to Lagos. The money from the internship was enough for me to get a place in Lagos before I got here. My uncle helped me inspect it. It was “pay and pack in.” Everything was settled.
And the job is well-paid?
Now you are coy.
[Laughs] The pay is good.
So, do you still work with java?
No. My job revolves around data more now. I’m more of a data engineer. I work more with C#, and with python sometimes. If you know an object oriented language, you will be able to grasp C# and other OOP languages. I don’t use java at all these days.
How has the experience been?
It has been wonderful. I have learned a lot and it contributed to my writing a book.
Tell me about the book.
I needed to write it so that people in Nigeria know that it is possible to work for these big companies, as long as you have the right skill set.
How much is the book?
The e-book is ₦6,800 and the hard copy is ₦10,800. I think it has sold over 400 copies across formats. And it’s not even out on Amazon yet! [Laughs]
Thank you. I wanted to use it to commemorate my first year at Microsoft.
So what advice do you have for those looking to make it big in tech?
Consistency is important. If you leave what you are learning for a long time, it is hard to continue. So, it’s better to do little by little over a long period of time than to be intensely studying for a short period.
Your network is also important. Your friends help you dream bigger. Those you know on social media are also important because that is how I got the referral for Microsoft. A third thing is to be positive. Think big. I have a very big eye. [Laughs] Anything that comes from me has to be big. And that helps me achieve more things over a short period of time.